The MeToo movement and other awareness-raising efforts have brought harassment to the forefront as one of the most important safety issues in the workplace today. Harassment is not something we can continue to ignore or minimize. We must finally recognize it as the hazard that it is.
How Is Harassment a Safety Issue?
When we think about common safety issues in the workplace, we often think about what causes physical injuries. However, we must remember that mental health is a safety issue, too. Harassment has a negative impact on emotional and psychological wellness, which can actually lead to physical issues. Stress and fatigue are common causes of physical injuries, and harassment contributes to stress and fatigue.
Physical injuries aside, the mental health impact alone of harassment is enough to qualify it as a safety issue. Just like more obvious physical injuries, poor mental wellness makes employees unable to perform their jobs well, if at all. When reporting health and safety issues in the workplace, then, managers need to include harassment in their assessments.
Consider that threats and acts of harassment have effects that are similar to physical threats and injuries. They make workers less productive, anxious, and distracted, and increase the likelihood that workers will seek employment elsewhere.
Furthermore, from a regulatory standpoint, harassment is illegal. So even if, when employers ask themselves “What are safety issues in the workplace?”, they don’t see harassment as a critical safety concern, the bottom line is this: it’s prohibited by law. Whatever bucket you put it in, harassment must be dealt with.
What Is Harassment?
The harassment workplace safety issues in the news these days largely, if not completely, center around sexual harassment. And it’s about time. But this is just one type of harassment. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, any unwelcome behavior based on any of the following is harassment:
- Sex or Pregnancy
- National origin
- Age (40 or older)
- Genetic information
Harassment can come in a lot of different forms. Unwanted touching or other physical violations are certainly forms of harassment, as are cyber-bullying, offensive language, and any type of intimidation.
Why Is Addressing Harassment Important Today?
Diligently preventing harassment is something we should have been doing all along, but we haven’t. Some environments have been notorious for poor behavior, and often people have made the excuses that go something along the lines of: Well, that’s just the way it is.
The good news is, that attitude is changing. There’s more and more awareness around sexual harassment and bullying. The media and the public in general are paying attention and calling for change and justice. In parallel, workplaces are becoming more diverse. These two shifts are strengthening the need to address and remedy issues around harassment in the workplace like never before.
How to Deal with Safety Issues in the Workplace that Center Around Harassment
As with all other safety training, you need to establish from the start that harassment is not tolerated in your work environment. It’s also important to clarify what harassment is. For some people, what may seem like a harmless joke or playful teasing may feel demeaning or offensive to someone else.
Addressing harassment can be particularly tricky in environments that have previously been lax about harassment oversight. There’s bound to be a lot of pushback, and perhaps even complaints from established workers about new hires being too sensitive or thin-skinned.
It’s important for these naysayers not only to understand that it’s not OK to be disrespectful to co-workers, but that their behavior poses safety issues in the workplace. Articles and videos about creating a harassment-free zone abound to help you handle this difficult issue.
For instance, here’s a short video providing a comprehensive approach for how to approach harassment in the workplace. The video focuses on sexual harassment but makes clear that the suggested ideas can apply to all forms of harassment:
Keeping an open dialog with workers is crucial to developing an atmosphere of respect, where all workers feel welcome and safe. Consider setting aside time during safety meetings to host an open discussion about speech and actions that are appropriate, and those that aren’t appropriate. This is a great way to introduce unexpected ideas in a safety moment, which, in addition to covering an important topic, helps keep workers engaged in the safety discussion.
Consider starting the dialog with a hypothetical situation. Discuss ways to handle your proposed scenario. And remind employees who they can talk to if they experience harassment or have questions on the subject.
If there’s no one in your company who is well-equipped to handle a hostile work environment, consider bringing in a mediator or other professional who can develop protocols, oversee adherence, and educate workers. Those within the construction sector in Western Canada are organizing to provide such third-party assistance to address harassment. Also be sure to solicit help from the workforce. Encourage employees to take a proactive role in creating workplace safety.
Preventing Harassment: It’s Simply a Matter of Respect
Addressing harassment can begin to appear complex in a hurry, especially when issues like lawsuits or legal definitions get drawn into the mix. The reality is, however, that it’s easy to understand what a harassment-free environment looks like: it’s a place where workers show mutual respect to each other.
Workers don’t all have to be friends. They don’t even have to like each other. But they do need to be respectful. And a mutually respectful environment doesn’t just eliminate incidents of harassment. It’s a place where all safety issues in the workplace are more likely to subside or disappear as well.